The Skulls

USA 2000

Reviewed by Xan Brooks


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Luke McNamara is a student from an impoverished background attending an Ivy League college. An athletics ace and top-flight law student, he is inducted into the elitist, top-secret society the Skulls, much to the disgust of his roommate, journalism student Will and his friend Chloe. As a Skull, Luke is given money and a sports car. He befriends Senator Levritt, a senior Skull, and fellow member Caleb Mandrake, whose father, Litten, is chairman of the society. Will, who is researching an exposé of the Skulls, is found dead in his room, apparently having committed suicide.

Caleb admits that he inadvertently killed Will in a struggle at the Skulls headquarters, where he caught him researching his story. With the help of Chloe and his friends from the days before he went to university, Luke obtains a surveillance tape which reveals that Litten ordered his henchmen to murder the injured Will after Caleb had left the building. Luke hands the tape to the police inspector investigating Will's death, only to realise that he is in cahoots with the Skulls. Luke is shipped off to a mental institution. Chloe informs Caleb that his father was responsible for Will's death, and later rescues Luke with the aid of Senator Levritt. Luke challenges Caleb to a duel, during which the enraged Caleb shoots his father. Luke realises that he has been used as a pawn in a plan by Levritt to seize control of the Skulls. He declines Levritt's offer to rejoin the society and sets off to begin a new life with Chloe.


There's a glorious moment near the start of The Skulls in which Leslie Bibb's WASP love interest unveils a machine programmed to squirt paint randomly at a canvas à la Jackson Pollock. "Am I the artist or is the machine?" she wonders. "Maybe it's just chaos in its purest form." Tweak this question a little and it could apply to the film as a whole. Who's the artist here: director Rob Cohen (making his first feature since Daylight, 1996) or the Hollywood machine? Either way, the end result is chaotic. Clankingly schematic in its first half, The Skulls proceeds to suffer a protracted nervous breakdown about midway through.

A college-set conspiracy thriller (think Enemy of the State by way of Varsity Blues), The Skulls affects to lift the lid on American elitism with a tale of a secret society obviously based on Yale's clandestine Skull and Bones (which counts both Bush senior and junior among its members). Its opening scenes set up a ready-made class tension. Luke (Joshua Jackson, graduate of television's Dawson's Creek) is a "townie" kid from the wrong side of the tracks who attracts the notice of the club's posh-boy fraternity by dint of sheer ability (he wins a boat race from a seemingly hopeless position). But while Luke is intrigued by the wealth and power of the Skulls, his best friend Will (a journalism student played by Hill Harper) is more sceptical: "If it's secret and elite it can't be good."

This, in essence, is The Skulls' moral. The trouble is that the film is fatally compromised, at least half way in love with the culture it purports to criticise. Throughout the film, Cohen adopts a trusty tabloid tack: shout it loud and then condemn it. He rubs the viewers' nose so lavishly in the cash and cars and career opportunities that follow Luke's entrée into the Skulls that the resulting fall-out (Will's murder) comes across as a minor price to pay. More significantly, it is this turn of fortunes that heralds the film's sudden plunge towards oblivion. Until then The Skulls is merely risible (arcane ceremonies and jocks wearing cowls). After Will's death it becomes positively barmy; afflicted by a fit of plot twists that culminate in the sight of Luke drooling in an institution like some extra from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Through pure mismanagement, The Skulls bungles a rich seam of material. There is a potentially fine drama to be made about secret societies like Skull and Bones - those breeding grounds of the American class system, with their ersatz model of age-old rituals thrown down on a new, supposedly libertarian landscape. The Skulls - at once airbrushed and untidy, contrived and confused - is emphatically not that movie.


Rob Cohen
Neal H. Moritz
John Pogue
John Pogue
Director of Photography
Shane Hurlbut
Peter Amundson
Production Designer
Bob Ziembicki
Randy Edelman
©Skulls Productions, LLC
Production Companies
Universal Pictures in association with Original Film/
Newmarket Capital Group present a Neal H. Moritz production
Executive Producers
William Tyrer
Chris J. Ball
Bruce Mellon
Fred Caruso
Associate Producers
Creighton Bellinger
Nancy Kirhoffer
Executive in Charge of Production
Original Film:
Jennifer Tuthill
Production Co-ordinator
Deborah Zwicker
Production Manager
Lyn Lucibello
Unit Production Manager
Robert Rothbard
Location Managers
Anthony Kadak
Arthur Clarke
2nd Unit:
Charles May
2nd Unit Director
John Pogue
Assistant Directors
Tony Lucibello
Grant Lucibello
Yolanda Graci
Harley Cohen
Script Supervisor
Elaine Yarish
Mary Vernieu
Anne McCarthy
Clare Walker
ADR Group Voice:
Loop Troop
2nd Unit Directors of Photography
Paul van der Linden
Keith Murphy
Camera Operators
Andy Chmura
Keith Murphy
Special Visual Effects
Syd Dutton
Bill Taylor
Illusion Arts
Special Effects
Ted Ross
Bob Hall
Shop Co-ordinator:
Pamela Gibson
Arthur Langevin
Shawn Thomas
Associate Editor
Jana Lynn Gold
Art Director
Peter Grundy
Set Designer
Neil Morfitt
Set Decorators
Steven Shewchuk
Clive Thomasson
Rudy Braun
Rupert Lazarus
Scenic Artist
Reet Puhm
Storyboard Artist
Nikita Knatz
'Action Jackson' Design
Jonathon Fineberg
'Action Jackson' Built by
Warren Keillor
Costume Designer
Marie-Sylvie Deveau
Wardrobe Supervisor
Kim W. Chow
Gayle Franklin
Key Make-up Artist
Leslie Sebert
Key Hair Stylist
Carol Marinoff
Title Design
The Picture Mill
Cinema Research Corporation
Additional Music
Steve Porcaro
Music Supervisors
Michelle Kuznetsky
Mary Ramos
Music Editor
Joanie Diener
Score Engineer/Mixer
Elton Ahi
"Something about a Ceiling" - 3 Day Wheely; "Deadcell" - Papa Roach; "Falling" - Eman; "Rigmarole" - BTK; "Devil's Train" - Hednoize; "Dandy Life" - Collective Soul; "Taste" - Lorna Vallings; "Higher" - Creed; "Right Here, Right Now" - Fatboy Slim; "Businessman's Bounce" - Sourcerer
Sound Supervisor
John Nutt
Sound Mixer
Glen Emile Gauthier
Sound Engineers
Jack Snyder
John Clavin
Jay Palmer
Frank N. Bassi
Re-recording Mixers
Mike Casper
Dan Leahy
Sound Recordist
Charlie Ajar Jr
Dialogue Editor
David Franklin Bergad
Sound Effects Designer
James 'Shadow' Lebrecht
Sound Effects Editor
Christopher Emerson
ADR Mixer
Jeff Gomillion
Margie O'Malley
Marnie Moore
Steve Fontano
Frank Rinella
Patti Tauscher
Boxing Consultants
Paul Walker III
Florida Jack Harrell
Stunt Co-ordinator
Branko Racki
Dominic Kahn
Weapons Wrangler
John 'Frenchie' Berger
Joshua Jackson
Luke McNamara
Paul Walker
Caleb Mandrake
Hill Harper
Will Beckford
Leslie Bibb
Christopher McDonald
Martin Lombard
Steve Harris
Detective Sparrow
William Petersen
Ames Levritt
Craig T. Nelson
Litten Mandrake
David Asman
Jason Pitcairn
Scott Gibson
Travis Wheeler
Nigel Bennett
Doctor Whitney
Andrew Kraulis
Derek Aasland
Jennifer Melino
Noah Danby
Hugh Mauberson
Mak Fyfe
Laurence Thorne
David Christo
Shawn Packford
Shaw Madson
Chad MacIntosh
Jesse Nilsson
Kent Hodgins
Shawn Mathieson
Jonathan Payne
Steven McCarthy
Matt Taylor
Henry Alessandroni
James Finnerty
preppy freshman
Cyprian Lerch
student in lunch line
Dominic Kahn
regatta judge
Ken Campbell
starting judge
Pedro Salvin
lodge butler
Derek Boyes
assistant district attorney
Katherine Trowell
sanctuary administrator
Connie Buell
Steve Richard
furniture mover
Kevin Allen
Sturtevant security guard
Paul Walker III
boxing coach
Jason Knight
police techie
Amanda Goundry
co-ed in Caleb's car
Malin Akerman
co-ed in Caleb's apartment
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
9,616 feet
106 minutes 51 seconds
Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS
Colour/Prints by
DeLuxe Film Laboratory Hollywood
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011